Murmurs from the fitness world suggest a regular stretching routine might not be necessary. In fact, depending on when and how you do it, it might actually do more harm than good. But stretching is great for us, right? So, how is this possible? And why?
I've never been flexible. As a child I was forced to participate in the Presidential Physical Fitness Test as part of first grade P.E. I have no idea if kids are still being tortured by this test today, but it was an incredibly heinous gauntlet of sit-ups and pull-ups and ridiculous things no small child should have to be able to do. Anywho, it's all a bit of a sweaty, terrified blur, but for the flexibility portion of the test you had to be able to reach down and touch your toes. It's not an exaggeration when I tell you that I couldn't even get my chubby little hands past my equally chubby knees. I reached like there was a chili cheese dog down there, but I just couldn't do it. As I struggled to force my cement-like hamstrings to lengthen, our P.E. teacher walked by and actually laughed at me. I don't remember much else about it, but my mom had to go into the school and yell at them so I wouldn't have to repeat the first grade. I've struggled with flexibility ever since.
As someone who not only practices daily fitness, but also teaches it, you'll be relieved to hear that my flexibility has improved. But not without a lot of work. Some people are born much more bendy than others. Consistent effort has allowed me to finally reach my toes, among other wonderful contortions. But is it really necessary for fitness?
Like me, I'm sure that you've been hearing your whole life that stretching is vital to your health. Back in the day, it was common knowledge that you needed to stretch before and after your workout. More recently, the powers that be have informed us that you no longer really need to do static stretches before your gym sesh, as long as you warm up properly and do some dynamic movement. And indeed, the text book for my group exercise certification devoted a whole chapter to the art and necessity of stretching post-workout. My textbook and other fitness professionals told us that stretching lengthens muscles, reduces soreness, and protects us from injury. Now, even that's up for debate.
I recently came across this article on Vitals, a fitness blog from Lifehacker, entitled "The Truth About Stretching: When It Helps and When It Doesn't." In the article, the author answers some of the questions surrounding stretching and debunks some myths. Here's a breakdown of the author's findings and my take on each point.
- Question 1: Does stretching helps alleviate muscle soreness?
- Author Breakdown: Might feel better for a quick minute but doesn't actually help in the long term. Can cause further tearing of tiny muscle fibers, which is why your muscles are sore in the first place.
My Take: Ok, I can agree with that. Stretching doesn't help too much when you're already sore, even though it feels good while you're doing it. But can a consistent stretching routine prevent soreness? A tiny bit. I read a recent study that found when people stretch before and after a workout they report a very small decrease in soreness over the next week. In an Australian study from 2011, the authors found that the decrease in soreness was so small (1-4 points out of 100) it didn't warrant any significant findings. But I disagree. I feel like that's what fitness is actually all about. You do all this stuff; really hard, time consuming stuff, and it makes a tiny bit of difference. But I think those tiny bits add up over time and can have a more pronounced effect on your health in the long run.
- Question 2: Does stretching increase or decrease muscular strength?
- Author Breakdown: Short Term: Decreases strength. For about half an hour after you aggressively stretch a muscle it's weaker than if you don't stretch it due to muscle fiber tearing and breakdown. Long Term: Increases strength. Because you do tear those fibers a bit when you aggressively stretch, when they repair they become stronger. Over time you end up with more strength.
My Take: I completely agree with this. The author also points out that gentle stretching or dynamic stretching (big exaggerated movements that take you through your full range of motion) do not decrease strength in the muscle, short term. And I think it's always beneficial to warm up in this way, no matter what kind of workout you're embarking on. Also, unless you're about to compete in a race or a power lifting event, most of us don't care too much if we decrease the strength in our muscles somewhat. But if you do care, perhaps save aggressive stretching for a workout on its own.
- Question 3: Don't I need to stretch to lengthen my muscles?
- Author Breakdown: Just stretching a muscle doesn't make it longer, it just changes your perception of pain. Meaning, the more we stretch the more we get used to it and can tolerate deeper stretches. The only way to actually lengthen a muscle is an eccentric exercise, where you stretch a muscle while it contracts. Think of the second part of a dumbbell curl. When you lower the weight, the muscle is stretching but also producing force.
My Take: I find this theory really compelling (here's an article about it from Runner's World). It seems legit, even though the study about it sounds incredibly complex and leaves a lot of room for interpretation. But I also wonder about people who seem to have naturally uber-flexible limbs. Were they just born with a high stretch tolerance? After all, discomfort is so personal. What's intolerable to one person may be perfectly comfortable in another. Maybe I'm not inflexible, I'm just a pain wimp? And of course I agree that eccentric exercise lengthens a muscle. That's why yoga is so effective. It relies on eccentric contractions for strength and flexibility gains.
- Question 4: Does stretching prevent injury?
- Author Breakdown: No.
My Take: Maybe there's nothing you can do to a muscle or tendon that will protect it from tearing if you land on it wrong or twist in an unfortunate way. However, I disagree with the broad statement that stretching can't prevent injury in any way. A body that is flexible and supple has a stronger core and greater range of motion and ease of movement. I believe that the strength and balance that comes with this kind of earned flexibility makes a person more unlikely to slip and fall or move awkwardly. Also, if you bend or turn in the wrong way, I think you have less of a chance of tearing something if it's within your range of motion, which increases with flexibility. So, in this way, I do think stretching can make you less prone to injury. However, being too flexible can also lead to injuries in itself.
The Bottom Line
So, should you stretch? I say, yes! Despite all the ambivalence and warnings, for me, the answer is a resounding yes. Dynamic stretching or movement before a workout is good. Stretching after a workout can decrease soreness a teeny bit. Aggressive stretching can make you stronger. Eccentric contractions, like a long hard yoga class, make you strong and lean. And IMO, I think it makes you a more healthful, balanced person and less prone to injury. The author of the Vitals article suggests foam rolling as a great alternative to stretching and I couldn't agree more (here's how to do it). Although, I might say foam rolling is great in addition to stretching.
Here's a simple, not-too-aggressive stretch I take my classes through after a tough hour-long HIIT class. Follow along and let me know how it makes you feel!
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Image: Sarah Olive Bergeson